By Jahmal Corner
(Reuters) - One of the fiercest MVP debates basketball has seen in years will add another chapter when the NBA Playoffs open this weekend with award frontrunners Russell Westbrook and James Harden meeting face to face.
In one corner: Oklahoma City’s Westbrook, who averaged the league’s second ever triple-double with dizzying numbers of 31.6 points per game, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists for the Thunder.
In the other: the bearded Harden, who facilitated a surprising Rockets surge to 55 wins while putting up 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds for Houston.
Individual mastery or team superiority? The first-round matchup between the number three seed Rockets and sixth-seeded Thunder will have no bearing on the MVP trophy but will be yet another talking point in the raging discussion.
Defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers and top-seeded Golden State Warriors have a chance to extend their own rivalry - and become the first teams ever to meet in three straight NBA Finals – if they can overcome hurdles.
The Cavs lost 14 of their final 24 games to drop to second in the Eastern Conference, behind the Boston Celtics, and enter the postseason shakily with a first-round matchup vs. the Indiana Pacers that launches the playoffs on Saturday.
“It's been strange events this season, unfortunate events, some of them bad, some of them good but at the end of the day I can't have my mind focused on the past now,” three-time champion LeBron James told reporters.
“The present is the only thing that matters.”
In the West, the Warriors caught a late-season rhythm but did so mostly without prized off-season acquisition Kevin Durant, who missed 19 games with a knee sprain and is being reinserted into the lineup on the fly.
Golden State put their All-Star backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson against Portland’s own impressive guard duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the opening round against the Blazers.
“They are two great phenomenal scorers who can go off at any time,” Thompson said about Portland’s backcourt, before adding “We’re all excited, we’re locked in."
The West’s second-seeded San Antonio Spurs look to put recent playoff disappointments behind and open against Memphis.
The series will pit Spanish brothers Pau Gasol (Spurs) and Marc Gasol (Grizzlies) against one another for the first time in the playoffs.
Despite their current core of stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Los Angeles Clippers have never advanced beyond the playoff’s second round.
The Clippers will take another crack at it beginning against the Utah Jazz and their emerging French big man Rudy Gobert.
In the East, the Celtics seek to prove that their scrappy run to the top of the East was not a fluke.
The Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizareds are viewed as the other East contenders tasked with trying to stop James from reaching his seventh consecutive Finals.
The Raptors play their first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, while the Wizards try to work their magic against the Atlanta Hawks.
(Writing by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; Editing by Larry Fine)